What you should know
Winning a lawsuit does not guarantee you will be paid. The person you sued (called the “debtor”, as they owe you a debt) might refuse to pay your judgment. But you have options:
- You can schedule a kind of enforcement hearing with the court. There, you can find out the debtor’s financial situation and get an order setting up a schedule of payments.
- You can go to the court registry to get an order for seizure and sale of the debtor’s personal property. You can then hire a court bailiff to carry out the order, taking and selling the debtor’s property.
- You can seek another order from the court, called a garnishing order. This requires a third party who owes money to the debtor to make payments to you.
- If you have a court order requiring the debtor to make instalment payments, and they don’t, you can ask the court for a default hearing, where the court can impose penalties.
- You can register your court judgment against any land the debtor owns in British Columbia. This will severely restrict the debtor’s ability to sell or mortgage the land until they pay the judgment.
We explain each option shortly.
A judge might make an order that includes a payment schedule, setting out how much the debtor must pay and how often they must pay it. If the debtor makes the payments following the schedule, you can’t collect the full amount all at once. But if there’s no payment schedule or if the debtor doesn’t follow the schedule, they will owe you the full amount immediately and you can take steps to collect it.
Options to enforce a court judgment
In a lawsuit, after a judge decides in your favour or you settle the case, you need to prepare an order. The order records what the judge decided. The order must be filed with the court registry and signed by the court. This must be done before you can take steps to collect on the order. Once you file the order with the court, it becomes an enforceable court judgment.
A court judgment lasts for 10 years. After that, you will have to ask the court to extend the order.
A final decision from the Civil Resolution Tribunal, the Residential Tenancy Branch, and many other tribunals can be filed in Provincial Court for enforcement.
After filing your court order, send a copy of it to the debtor with a letter asking them to pay you. Send the letter by registered mail.
Make the letter short and clear. You can warn them that you will take further action if they don’t pay by a certain date. Set a reasonable deadline — for example, 14 days from the date you send your letter. Include the address where they can send the payment.
One method to enforce a court judgment, available in both Small Claims Court and Supreme Court, is a kind of enforcement hearing. At this hearing, you can find out the debtor’s financial situation, ask them questions about their ability to pay, and get an order setting up a schedule of payments.
If your judgment is from Small Claims Court, the hearing is called a payment hearing. In Supreme Court, there are two examination processes, a subpoena to debtor or an examination in aid of execution. In either court, you can file documents with the court to schedule a hearing.
At the hearing, the debtor can be required to produce income tax returns, recent pay stubs, and other documents that show their assets, income and debts. You can ask questions of the debtor about their employment, bank accounts, and other assets and sources of income. The judge considers whether the debtor can pay the court order, and whether to set up a payment schedule.
If the debtor doesn’t attend the hearing, you can ask the judge to issue an arrest warrant, forcing the debtor to attend. (That’s rarely done. Debtors usually get many chances to pay.)
You can use the information you get at the hearing to help collect your judgment. And the costs of your application for the hearing will be added to the amount the debtor must pay you.
You can enforce a court judgment by taking action against the personal property of the debtor. You can go to the court registry to get an order for seizure and sale. You can then hire a court bailiff to carry out the order, taking and selling the debtor’s property.
This option, which is available in both Small Claims Court and Supreme Court, can be useful if the debtor has valuable assets, such as a car, a boat, or shares in a profitable company. But you cannot seize everything the debtor owns. Under the Court Order Enforcement Act, a debtor may exempt certain things from being seized and sold, such as:
- household furnishings and appliances to a value of $4,000
- one vehicle up to a value of $5,000
- $10,000 worth of tools and other personal property the debtor uses to earn income for work
If you seek an order for seizure and sale, you will need to pay a deposit to cover the bailiff’s estimated costs. The bailiff will be paid first from the sale of the goods, so try to find out if the debtor has enough property to make the seizure and sale worthwhile. Check with ICBC to see if the debtor has any motor vehicles registered in their name. You can also search the debtor’s name in the BC Manufactured Home Registry and the Personal Property Registry to see if the debtor owns any personal property worth more than their exemption amounts.
An order for seizure and sale lasts for one year.
With a court judgment, you can seek another order from the court, called a garnishing order, which requires a third party who owes money to the debtor to make payments to you.
For example, you can give the garnishing order to the debtor’s employer or to their bank, and the wages owed to the debtor or the money in their bank account will be paid to the court instead. Once the court receives the money, you can apply to have it paid out to you.
Normally, only 30% of a debtor’s wages can be garnished. And there are some technical rules and steps you must follow. See our information on garnishment for details of what’s involved.
If you have a court order requiring the debtor to make instalment payments, and they don’t, you can ask for a hearing where the court can impose penalties.
In Small Claims Court, the hearing is called a default hearing. In Supreme Court, there are two examination processes, a subpoena to debtor or an examination in aid of execution. In either court, you can file documents with the court to schedule the hearing.
At this hearing, the court can ask the debtor why they have not made payments under the court order. The judge can either confirm the original payment schedule or change it. If the judge decides the debtor’s explanation for not paying shows contempt of court, the judge can send the debtor to jail, and the debtor must still pay the money.
If the debtor does not attend the hearing, you can ask the judge to issue an arrest warrant.
You can register your court judgment against any land the debtor owns in British Columbia. This will severely restrict the debtor’s ability to sell or mortgage the land until they pay the judgment.
To find out if the debtor owns land in BC, do a name search at the Land Title Office. You can do this through BC OnLine.
To register your court judgment, you must get a certificate of judgment from the court registry and file it with the Land Title Office where the debtor’s land is registered.
The registration is good for two years, and can be renewed every two years up to 10 years.
You can also ask the BC Supreme Court to force a sale of the property, so you can recover the amount you are owed from the proceeds of the sale. Be aware this process is expensive and involved.
Who can help
The BC government website has how-to guides on Small Claims Court, including one on getting results, explaining the tools available to help you collect on a judgment.
The Supreme Court BC Online Help Guide, from Justice Education Society, provides step-by-step information on each stage of a lawsuit before that court, including a guide on enforcing court orders.